Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Deceptive half truths from Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center is supposed to be an organization you can trust. They are routinely cited on NPR. They are a non-profit. They claim to be non-partisan. As cynical as I am, I never had reason to distrust them...until now.

Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at Pew, writes a story titled, "High-income Americans pay most income taxes, but enough to be 'fair'?". Given the title, readers might expect the author to actually answer that question, but DeSilver doesn't even try.

He starts out with a nice chart showing the composition of government revenue since 1934. It's interesting, but with regard to income tax revenue as a percentage of government revenue, not much has changed post WWII. However, please note that this does not mean that income tax rates haven't changed over that time period--more on that later.

After a bit about corporate taxation, which is tangential to the question posed in the title, he presents his second chart, "Who Pays Income Taxes? The Rich, Mostly". What a surprise! The people with the most income pay the most income tax!

DeSilver then diverges into a discussion of payroll taxes, which again is tangential to the income tax queston posed in the title, and then concludes that "the U.S. tax system as a whole is progressive." As to whether the overall tax system is fair, something at least close to the question proposed in the title, he waffles with a milquetoast some-say-yes and some-say-no.

As a reader, what the hell am I supposed to make of this? What I make of it is that DeSilver wants to slap the "progressive" label on our tax system to imply that the status quo is acceptable, or at least not "unfair".

The problem is DeSilver does not address the question in proper historical context, and I think he does this deliberately. Consider a few things omitted from his article:
  1. A chart of effective income tax rates over time for varying levels of income. Top tax rates used to be far higher than they are today. 
  2. A chart showing income over time in deciles. The rich keep getting richer.
  3. A chart showing the income tax composition (earned income and unearned income) over time for varying levels of income. The poor generally have no unearned income, while it now makes makes up a majority for the wealthy.
  4. A chart showing tax rates over time for earned income (wages) and unearned income (interest, dividends, and capital gains). Tax rates are historically low on unearned income, which favors the rich.
I claim DeSilver deliberately omits this information, because he doesn't seem to be a bad writer. If ten journalism students were asked to do a report on income taxes in America, it seems highly unlikely that even one of them would simultaneously omit all four of these points. I also expect that DeSilver has an editor who signed off on this, which indicts the Pew Research Center. They may not be publishing outright lies, but they're not publishing the outright truth either.

A question for Senator Ron Wyden

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) was an outspoken critic of secret CIA and NSA domestic spying programs. However, he is the leading Democratic proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. TPP is being negotiated behind closed doors by multi-national corporations, and leaked documents show that the details of TPP are to be kept secret for four years after TPP is implemented.

A simple question for Ron Wyden:

Why is government secrecy bad when it comes to domestic surveillance programs, but just fine when it comes to trade agreements?

Not a rhetorical question.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Double standards on torture

McClatchy recently published a story about a suspected Pinochet-era torturer who had been working for the US government as recently as 2014. Clearly, the angle being pushed is that Americans should be outraged that a foreigner who might have been a torturer 40 years ago in Chile was working for the US government.

If that's the case, McClatchy might be interested in some more recent history. Not so long ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that documents torture conducted by Americans and our foreign agents during the ongoing war on terror. Other than Lyndie England (of Abu Ghraib dog leash fame) and her ex-fiance, no one is in jail. A few people higher up the chain were demoted, but didn't lose their jobs. The few that did lose their jobs (Dick Cheney and John Woo for example), only lost them due to the change in administrations.

It seems safe to say that there are hundreds of people currently working in the US government that were complicit in torture. Not just the torturers themselves, but the officials who sanctioned it, the medical staff that consulted, and everyone else that tried to keep it a secret. Maybe McClatchy can get to work on that story, unless torture is only an issue when foreigners do it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Credit where credit is due

On December 14th, Krugman had this to say about TPP:
Dean Baker takes me to task over the Trans Pacific trade deal, arguing that it’s not really about trade — that the important (and harmful) stuff involves regulation and intellectual property rights.

I’m sympathetic to this argument; this was true, for example, of DR-CAFTA, the free trade agreement with Central America, which ended up being largely about pharma patents. Is TPP equally bad? I’ll do some homework and get back to you.
On March 11th, Krugman finished his homework, got back to us, and announced he was thumbs down on TPP. He went into greater detail, but what he didn't do was acknowledge Dean Baker's role in nudging him down the correct path.

This seemed a bit out of character for Krugman. Afterall, he cited Baker three months ago, so why not now? Through Krugman's comment section, I requested that Krugman acknowledge Baker's work against the TPP, but my comment was rejected by the NY Times moderator. Baker, surprisingly, didn't react to Krugman's change of heart on TPP or his lack of professionalism.

A week later, this was still bugging me. Economic researchers live and die by being first. Giving and taking credit is part of the game, and Krugman plays it all the time. Here are some examples from the first page of Krugman's blog on March 18th.
Way back — before Lehman fell! — I argued that there was a distinction between modern and postmodern recessions.

That’s actually why I was predicting a sluggish recovery well in advance, and in fact well before the Reinhart-Rogoff aftermath paper came out.

And a number of economists, myself included, independently developed models of leverage, currency mismatch, and balance sheet effects to make sense of the Asian crisis.

I think I was the first to quote St. Augustine here: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.
Krugman obviously wants credit when he's first, but he needs to reciprocate. 

By the way, it appears that I'm the first and only one on the internet making this point.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Current Assessment of Obama

UPDATED 24 March 2015 to include comments on ISIS/ISIL and to point the use of sarcasm regarding the killing of Bin Laden. 

A long lost email from a friend about a sturgeonmouth post on the power of the presidency, inspired me to put this together--my first post in over a year!

Here's my current assessment of Obama on various topics--whether he met my expectations, exceeded my expectations, or fell short of my expectations.


In my view, PPACA is Obama's biggest achievement. It's far from perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. That said, PPACA, without the public option, is the minimum that any Democratic president would have achieved with Democratic control of both the house and senate. Obama didn't perform a magic act here.

Furthermore, Obama campaigned on the public option, only to trade it away for votes that never materialized. Many changes have been made to PPACA since passage, but adding the public option has not been championed by Obama. At this point, I think Obama only embraced the public option in the primaries as a way to differentiate his health care plan from Clinton's. It's Obama's failure to support a public option that causes him to fall short of my expectations for health care reform -- an expectation that he set! 



Obama had to deal with a monster economic meltdown due to policies promoted for decades by previous administrations. While he didn't entirely screw up in his response, his stimulus proposal was far too modest, as many of his own advisors, as well as outside economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz said from the start.

Obama had a lot of power at this time. People on both sides of the aisle were in a panic. He could've have taken the opportunity to push for more, not only more stimulus, but stimulus that targeted infrastructure over tax cuts. He could have pushed for stimulus that was contingent on tighter regulations of the financial industry. He could have argued for bailing out underwater homeowners instead of underwater banks. Instead, he tried to make nice with the Republicans, who didn't reciprocate. Therefore, we ended up with an insufficient stimulus that actually undermined the Democratic case for Keynesian economics (government spending replacing private spending during periods of low demand).

Obama also undermines Keynesian economics by repeating right-wing talking points about how the government needs to tighten it's belt, just like the American family is forced to tighten it's belt. This is asinine. The government, unlike the American people, is immortal, and can print legitimate money at will. Rather than using his position to educate Americans about this significant difference between the government budget and household budgets, he contributes to American ignorance.


While Obama has slightly increased taxes for the rich, he has not been a strong advocate for financial regulation, or for prosecution of those responsible for the meltdown.

When Obama took office, none of us had probably even heard of Elizabeth Warren. I think she provides the perfect case study for the argument I was making in the post that inspired my friend's email. Presidents have enormous power to shape public opinion, much more than a Harvard professor or a first-term senator. Yet, it's Elizabeth Warren, not Barrack Obama, that is fueling a grassroots movement for increased financial regulation and a more equitable economic system.

I think where a person spends their time, energy, and resources is a good indicator of their values (in fact, it would be weird if it wasn't). In this case, it's clear to me that Warren shares my progressive values, and Obama does not.


Obama is currently pushing hard for congress to give him fast-track authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This so-called free trade agreement has little to do with free trade and everything to do with corporate control. Elizabeth Warren complained last week that TPP would give international trade courts authority over American courts. In her example, foreign companies could sue the US in trade courts if US law forbids imports of item containing toxic chemicals as a violation of free trade. Already, based on similar provisions in earlier trade deals, tobacco companies are suing small countries for putting warning labels on cigarette packages, claiming this is a free trade violation! As if that's not enough, TPP pushes our intellectual property laws onto other countries, forcing them to buy expensive drugs from Big Pharma, rather than produce cheap generics domestically. Dean Baker is a must read on this topic (and for economics in general).

Obviously, Obama did not meet my expectations on the economy. I'm not ready to claim that he is corrupt (exchanging favors for money), but time will tell. It will be very interesting to see what Obama does post-presidency. If he ends up somewhere financed by Wall street, or if a disproportionate amount of his speaking fees come from Wall Street, I'll concede that he was corrupt.



I'll start with an easy win for Obama. He did the right thing by normalizing trade relations with Cuba. This issue has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. It's a small issue, it was long overdue, and apparently it was pushed more by Hillary than Obama, but whatever, it's progress. It makes American foreign policy slightly less inconsistent, and it will benefit the people of Cuba.


This is where things get weird. Back in 2007, at my local Democratic primary, I stood on a chair in the middle of a noisy room to plead with members of my precinct to vote for Obama over Clinton. It wasn't because Obama supported the public option and Clinton did not. It was because Obama was against the pre-emptive regime-changing war in Iraq and Clinton was not. It was this issue that brought Obama to national prominence, and it's largely credited for his victory over Clinton, and subsequently McCain.

So, four years later, it's safe to say I was pretty disappointed to see Obama sign on for a pre-emptive regime-changing war in Libya. Just like Iraq in the aftermath of the war Obama opposed, Libya in the aftermath of the war Obama supported, is now an unmitigated disaster. What a surprise!


Here, Obama had the opportunity to show who he really is, the man who opposed the pre-emptive regime-changing war in Iraq, or the man who supported the pre-emptive regime-changing war in Libya. Unfortunately, he supported a pre-emptive regime-changing war in Syria. Strongly. Fortunately, this war didn't happen, but only because Britain's parliament voted against it, and John Kerry's infamous, last-minute, accidental diplomacy.

[sidenote] I wrote extensively about this issue here at sturgeonmouth, and I think it's the best writing/analysis I've ever done, mostly because no one else was making the same argument. I still contend there's a Pulitzer Prize available for a real journalist who can dig into the details. This was a massive intelligence failure that nearly launched yet another American war in the middle east, right on the heels of the massive intelligence failure and debacle in Iraq. At the very least, if Hillary runs for 2016, someone needs to ask her if the Clinton State Department shared the view of the subsequent Kerry State Department that Assad would never give up his chemical weapons.


Obama's drone war in Yemen, like much of the war on terror, is only creating more terrorists.


Kudos here. Given Obama siding with the warmongers on Libya and Syria, I'm not sure why he is opposing them on Iran. Maybe he's learning that pre-emptive regime-changing war isn't all it's cracked up to be. Who could've known? In any case, negotiating with Iran over their nuclear program is a good thing.


Like American presidents before him, Obama seems committed to supporting the Israel policy of a vocal minority over a quiet majority. I am optimistic that this will change in our lifetimes...if we all agree not to die for at least 10, probably more like 20 years.


Despite McCain's tireless efforts to make things worse, Obama's doing OK here. He should continue to resist calls to send arms to Ukraine. I highly recommend Daniel Larison for more on this and all other foreign policy issues.


Geez, I almost forgot Obama's most celebrated foreign policy achievement. I suppose I have to say something about his heroic killing of Osama bin Laden. After all, this had a monumental historic effect. It's what finally ended the war on terror, right? [SARCASM]


To me, ISIS is just the latest in the parade of never-ending boogeyman that are supposed to have us cowering in fear and begging our politicians to do whatever it takes. Soon enough, they'll be replaced by some other group, and in ten years, Americans won't know ISIS from icicles.

Overall, Obama didn't come close to meeting my expectations on foreign policy. If we were all asked in 2008 how many pre-emptive regime-changing wars we expected Obama to start, we all would've adamantly said ZERO! Sadly, we were wrong, and for me, that trumps everything else.



I'll start with Guantanamo because Obama explicitly made the closure of Guantanamo part of his 2008 campaign. His failure here is a major stain on his presidency. His early attempt to merely move Guantanamo to US soil, while maintaining the underlying concept of indefinite detention without charges or trials, was shameful. Many of the Guantanamo prisoners were known to be innocent, but were kept imprisoned because they'd be in danger if sent back to their home countries. Had Obama wanted to make the case, these examples could have been effective in changing public perception about Guantanamo. But, remember what I said about where a person spends their time, energy, and resources?


After years of saying "we don't torture", the senate report forced Obama to admit "we tortured some folks". Granted, he was talking about the Bush era, but that's little comfort to me. I thought his use of the word "folks" seemed to trivialize the issue, as did his admonishment that we shouldn't get too self-righteous about the torturers because they were under a lot of stress at the time. Torture is never OK, and stress is not an excuse (nor a legal defense at The Hague). Obama's decision to "look forward instead of backward" with regard to torture prosecutions was cowardly and abrogates our international obligation to investigate alleged war crimes. By letting the perpetrators off the hook, Obama has set the stage for more torture every time something "scary" happens.


Obama betrayed us pretty quickly when he granted immunity to the telecoms for Bush-era spying. Who knew that would be just the tip of the iceberg? Please watch Citizenfour. This is a great, entertaining, and disturbing synopsis of what Edward Snowden revealed about domestic spying. I love Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's reaction when Director of National Intelligence Director James Clapper lies to his face! Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander have repeatedly lied to congress. Their boss, Barrack Obama, has not fired them. That tells you everything you need to know about Obama's view on this subject, but if you must know more, read up on how his administration has gone after those who expose these abuses. Glenn Greenwald's archives at Salon and Marcy Wheeler's blog will overwhelm you with the details.

Obama campaigned in 2007 as marriage being between a man and a woman. It wasn't until the tide of public opinion turned, and the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage exploded, that Obama, the constitutional scholar, decided that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right. This was not leadership. This was Obama opportunistically jumping in front of a growing parade that had been marching for years.

Furthermore, I'm far from alone in suspecting that Obama was lying about his opposition to same-sex marriage during the 2007 campaign as a political tactic. I think this was both bad politics and cowardly. What constituency was Obama going to alienate that wasn't already planning to vote for McCain, especially when both sides assumed he was being insincere?

Obviously, on the issue of civil rights, Obama's performance is way below my expectations.


Obama has jumped on the bandwagon that says college for everyone is the answer to income inequality. This argument is so stupid it pains me. It sounds good, but if you think about it, it is stupid. What would change if suddenly everyone had a college degree? Society would still need people to collect garbage, roof houses, pick fruit, etc. The real answer is that everyone, college degree or not, needs to be paid a living wage for their contribution to society.  

I can't say Obama fell short of my expectations on the issue of education because I didn't have any. I think any President's role is limited, and that the real action on educations happens at the state level. Admittedly, education policy is not one of my passions, but if anyone has a go-to source on this issue, please point me that way.   


I don't know what category to put this in, so I'll let it stand on it's own. Obama vigorously supported net neutrality, and the FCC recently adopted a strong net neutrality policy. Hooray for Obama, right!? Well, not so fast. Look at the chronology. Obama only started arguing strongly for net neutrality after John Oliver mobilized hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Americans to bombard, and ultimately shut down, the FCC website in support of net neutrality.

This goes back to the point I was trying to make in the blog post to which my friend responded. I don't think that a British comedian with a weekly show on HBO inherently has more sway with the American public than the President of the United States. Obama either didn't care about the issue, or like same-sex marriage, wasn't willing to take a strong stand until others built a winning coalition. It's opportunistic politics, but it's not leadership.  


While I expected more on immigration, I'll blame the Republicans, not Obama. I thought the Chamber of Commerce types would've been able to force a Republican compromise. While it was a little late, I think Obama handled this perfectly. America hates congress far more than it has ever hated Obama. This gave him tremendous leverage to say, in effect, "hey, since congress is too dysfunctional to send me a bill, I'm going to issue an executive order. If congress ever gets it's act together and sends me a comprehensive immigration reform bill, I'll rescind the executive order, and sign the bill." Brilliant. More of this please.


Like immigration, Obama is finally making progress by using executive orders instead of tilting at congressional windmills. Expectations low, but met.


Below expectations. I didn't expect a Democratic President to be the one to put Social Security cuts on the table (repeatedly) in the form of chained-CPI (cutting benefits by redefining the inflation index). Elizabeth Warren is on the right path, talking about strengthening Social Security by raising the ceiling on contributions.


Even though I acknowledge the Republican obstruction in congress, Obama has not met my expectations. Sadly, despite that, I'd vote for a third Obama term in a heartbeat over Hillary Clinton. There is not a single issue where I think she'd be better, yet I'll probably have to vote for her.